Young softball Lady Tops embracing roster turnover

The Lady Toppers softball team warms up with offensive practices before they begin their scrimmage at the WKU Softball Complex on Friday.

Nick Bratcher

Of last season’s top-five leaders in batting average, just one will return for WKU softball this season.

That’s one of several changes the Lady Toppers must overcome when they take the field this spring.

With six freshmen and seven sophomores, Head Coach Tyra Perry said youth will be the biggest challenge for WKU this year.

“Two of our juniors — one, it’s her second year with us because she’s a transfer, and the other, it’s her first year because she’s a transfer,” Perry said. “So, even in our upper class we’re still very young and new to Western Kentucky.”

That’s not to say the Lady Toppers are lacking in young talent, however.

Last season as freshmen, pitcher Mallorie Sulaski and utility fielder Ciara Garcia lead the team in batting average and runs scored, respectively.

Sulaski was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference second team, batting .340 and posting seven wins on the mound.

Sulaski said the team is actually excited for the large roster turnover.

“There are a lot of things from last year that we wanted to change,” she said. “So, we’re looking at it as a fresh new start that we can all get on the same page and grow together throughout the years.”

WKU isn’t relying solely on its sophomore standouts, though.

Garcia said she’s putting particular emphasis on the freshmen to fill the offensive void. She was placed in a similar situation last season when starting first baseman Shannon Smith injured her ankle, and Garcia stepped into the lineup as her replacement.

Garcia ultimately started 49 of WKU’s 51 games as a result.

“The freshmen class is very talented, and they’ve brought a good amount of hitters too,” she said. “So I think we’ve filled in that gap, if not added more talent.”

Talent or not, Perry said WKU still lacks in crucial experience. But she said she has been trying to grow and develop it in practice through drills and repetition so the younger players can have “the proper reaction in games.”

But drills and hard work don’t necessarily replace the leadership that comes with familiarity to real-game situations, so Perry said she’s taking a less conventional approach to shore up that weakness.

“We’ve also done quite a bit of leadership training trying to prepare our upperclassmen to help our younger players through the different ups and downs of the season,” Perry said. “We separate them, and the juniors and seniors are going over more leadership style — verbal or lead-by-example or both.”

Not all of the Lady Toppers agree that their youth is a negative. Sulaski said the team could even use it to their advantage this season, which begins Friday at the Gaucho Classic in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“I think one of our strengths is being a young team because we’re out there just having fun, and there’s no real pressure on us like seniors that have to perform,” Sulaski said. “No one is going to expect us to do well, so I think that’s going to be a positive for us.”